Altered cultural and everyday objects express liminality

At the reception, I had a few people want to have access to my artist statement,
so I decided to post it here.

photo by Susan Friedman

I dedicate this exhibition, “In Liminal Space”
at Enso Art Gallery 
to my mother Doris Shintani,
and to all beings in the midst of transformation

Liminality: “…in-between situations and conditions that are characterized by
the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty
 regarding the continuity of tradition and future outcomes.” ~ Arnold van Gennep 

I alter cultural and everyday objects to construct stories to reflect our current times and to offer space to ponder and question. These installations are an expression of the ongoing process of destruction and creation.

In Japan, when a woman puts on a kimono it becomes part of her body. Though the kimono appears to be a flowing and simple gown, the layers that bind the woman’s breasts and the rest of her body makes for a very constricting uniform. Breathing is difficult and only small steps may be taken. The restrictive nature of wearing of it is thought to instill tranquility and peacefulness.

As I cut away the red flowers and leaves from the ivory kimono, I felt somewhat uncomfortable. I am destroying a symbol of my Japanese culture. I wonder, who was the woman who wore it? What was her life like?

I cut out the black flower pattern from this used kimono that was gifted to me.

photo by Susan Friedman

The cutting becomes a meditation. I feel a connection to the larger community of women who create and mend clothing. However, I was doing it in reverse…I was taking it apart.

My alterations reflect the loosening connection to my ancestry and culture, and the kimono is reduced to a skeleton, a web. The garment still maintains its elegant and simple structure even after deconstruction. I contemplate making more breathing space in my life to support a simple, healthy, and creative life path.

The kimono installation became a premonition of the Japanese devastation that was yet to come. The deconstructed garments represent not only the personal space but also the liminal space where the transformation of tradition, culture, and structure takes place.

This is the first kimono I cut up. I meditated on the loss of connection with my ancestors and culture

photo by Susan Friedman

The altered umbrellas question our concept of safety and shelter in a world of seemingly unending disasters. I long for an uncomplicated time when holding something over our heads protected us from what fell out of the sky.

The “Pearls Left Behind” installation created out of pizza rounds, conveys the connection of two war times – America’s war with Japan in the 1940’s and the current Iraqi wartime. Both of these events resulted in racial profiling, prejudice, deception, and death. Does history repeat or does it simply rhyme?

The “Vision Quest” ladder reflects my optimism that this threshold offers opportunity for evolution of human consciousness.

I hope my exhibit at Enso Gallery stimulates contemplation and discussion. I welcome your feedback.

 photo by Susan Friedman


The artist’s secrets, creating the Pearls Left Behind installation

My process of creating still surprises me even after a few years of art making. This year I have taken another route – proposing work to galleries before creating it.  This is an interesting and more collaborative way of working with curators. I propose ideas and get feedback from them on fit with the theme and other work going into the show, taking into consideration the site for the exhibition.

Most recently I created an installation for the Re-Claim Exhibition for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center. I proposed 2 different directions and they selected the idea of expanding the Remembrance Shrine I created 3 years ago.

The newly created Pearls Left Behind installation is a collection of reactions to memories of Japanese American Internees featured on the Remembrance Shrine Over three years viewers wrote their responses on white strips of paper and tied them to the shrine at seven exhibitions throughout the Bay Area and in the Pacific Northwest.

I had not looked at the reactions until 2 months ago. As I removed them from the hanging raffia on the bottom of the shrine, I counted 133 responses. I was very moved by these thoughts about the “camps”, peace, apologies, war, and shame. A discussion about this painful time in US history does not often happen and here were 133 people who had something to say about it. I could see each written expression as a pearl of wisdom, as gifts to be shared.

I transcribed all the handwritten reactions, typing them into my computer. I felt almost as if they were prayers and confessions and wishes to convey to the internees. I selected 1/3 of the writings to feature in the new installation. By the time I completed the piece the actual number of “pearls” I ended up with was 41, apropos since the war started in 1941.

I knew I was going to incorporate cardboard pizza rounds into the installation but I had not exactly figured out how. I started playing around with cutting the circles. I knew I did not want to just write on them as they were. I began hand cutting the circles into rings, getting 3 rings out of each flat. Next I applied tracing paper to each ring. The translucency took on some of the same quality as the Shrine’s rice paper and Noguchi’s lanterns that were an inspiration.

I thought I was going to transfer the typed text by using adhesive lettering. When I spoke to the signage company they were not able to work with the thinness of the font. As a result I ended up tracing printouts of the text, using different thicknesses of sharpie pens.

Some people asked me why I did so much handwork instead of using laser cutting for the rings and getting the text printed on large architectural printers. In my prior occupation, I directed retail merchandising campaigns, creating banners, store displays, and signage. I did not want to use mechanical production methods with this installation. An organic treatment was applied to the material to give a handmade look to the original machine punched out cardboard pizza rounds. The hand cutting, painting, and handwriting of these selected 41 responses became my meditation for the last two months. I really wanted the making process to be part of the honoring of the viewers’ thoughts. I added gold paint to the rings, allowing some of the cardboard to still peek through. I used simple hemp string to join the circles together. The honesty of the materials was something I did not want to cover up.

The final part of the installation was the structure from which the pearls or thought bubbles would hang. I knew I wanted to incorporate the mulberry branches pruned from the tree in my childhood backyard in Lodi. We drove around with these on top of our van for a couple of weeks and everyone thought our car was a moving installation. Perfect since I named the old ‘80s van Babar after the storybook elephant. My partner came up with the idea of wrapping the branches with barbed wire and how we came upon a bunch of it rusted to the right color is another story.

There were 3 meanings to the title Pearls Left Behind. Pearls were selected because of the saying “pearls of wisdom”, because of the shapes of the circles, and also as a tip of the hat to my father’s family, who lost their oyster farm in Washington when they were interned.

It is my hope that some internees may see these words on the installation and find them healing. May they see that there is some understanding about what happened, and that what they experienced still matters. We must not forget because unfortunately some one else may be on the hot seat of persecution next time.

Telling an ancestor’s story

Telling a story about an ancestor can be a gift to oneself and to one’s family. It is powerful to have your stories heard. It is a great community building experience too, because it allows others to think about their own ancestors and stories.

Here is how Lisa Petrides and I created “Grandmothers from far lands” together.

Capturing the memories

We did a meditation to ask our grandmothers what they wanted conveyed in our storytelling. Then we both took some individual time to write down some of the things we remembered about our grandmothers. We thought about their history, things we liked about them, some hardships, our relationship with these women.

Collaborating – the similarities and contrasts

We got together and shared these stories and discovered that there were similar veins, for example, both our grandmothers had arranged marriages. It was through these marriages that they came to America. We also began to notice how different their lives were in America. Lisa’s grandmother lived in a city and my grandmother lived in a houseboat. Culturally their temperaments and styles were also a contrast we worked with.


Following the flow

We used the time line as the flow of the story. We started in their native countries and traveled over the ocean to America. We walked, following the shape of an infinity sign, to tell about the long ship journey. We brought in props which anchored their stories and clued viewers into where they were and what they were doing. As we took turns speaking, the other person swept the floor behind them. Lisa spoke in her grandmother’s voice as she washed dishes, and I was my grandmother as she washed the rice.

Practicing in the space

If at all possible practice in the space you will be performing in. This allows you to be more familiar with the sound level, lighting, seating, etc. If that isn’t possible, envision the space as you practice elsewhere.

Invite critiques

Before two shows we invited some folks in to critique our performance. We got some great feedback about background music and adding movement. We were able to make some changes which improved the show.



We did some advertising and promotion through the local newspapers, email, postcards, and posters. After doing all that preparation, it is nice to have an audience! Of course that all took some advance planning since the pr had to be out almost a month ahead of time.

Performing it

On the day of the performance try to take it easy so you will be at your best. We passed out brief programs so the audience could have something to read and follow what we were doing. We did a little introduction and then went into the 15 minute performance. At the end we invited the audience to participate by standing and speaking their own grandmother’s name and many did so.

Allow for transformation

Lisa and I have changed the performance each time we have done it. Sometimes it depended on the venue. We have told our grandmothers’ stories in an art gallery, a senior center, and at a yoga center. It is important to keep in mind who you are telling the story to. For example if I were to do it for seniors again, I would invite them to have a sharing session afterwards so they could share their own tales.

Sometimes the stories change themselves, revealing more memories to incorporate in the performance. Sometimes we change in the way we want to speak. Allow for fun, change, and mystery that evolves with memories and storytelling.

Suggested educational uses

Provide your students with a list of questions and possible ancestor they can research. Have them bring in photographs and stories they have gathered. The students will break into groups based on which ancestors they selected. They will meet and discuss similarities and contrasts. Have them write up a 15 minute script and practice their performance. Document their presentations using video and photography.

There are many overlapping tie-ins:

  • history
  • theater
  • social studies
  • language
  • culture
  • arts

Two pieces on immigration

I (Judy Shintani) just finished up two pieces which had to submit today to the Women Artists on Immigration Show. The show is organized and presented by Women’s Caucus for Art with the Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles.


This piece is called Motion. I am conveying the push pull nature of immigration. Events which may push some one to move to another location are: natural disasters, wage rates, war, genocide, abuse. Education, relationships, jobs, self expression are things that could pull one to move to another country, state, town. I wanted to convey these different motivations that cause a stream of people to move small distances or around the world. I think about my grandparents who moved from Japan to the USA. People have been immigrating for a long time and they will continue to do so. The deteriorating propeller gives that sense of time.

This piece is called Bottom Drawer. While I was working with my friend Carla to remove overgrown plants from their pots, all these lovely, crawly, dark, roots appeared. They were completely root bound and had to be pried out. They had grown around and around into a big ball in the bottom of the pots. It made me think of unsaid, unseen things. For example what were the experiences of my grandparents immigration? I know some of their hardships. I know they were imprisoned on American soil during the war, but these experiences I did not hear about from their lips. They either died before this could be communicated or were not discussed. Bits and pieces have been expressed by their children but I do not have the whole story. My life goes on and I acknowledge I am here because of their desire to leave their homeland and explore something else. I don’t think about it that often. We put a lot of things in the “bottom drawer” and they see the light of day when we decide to pull it open.

Invite your favorite senior to our 5/8 performance and luncheon


Lisa Petrides and Judy Shintani are performing “Honoring Grandmothers from Far Lands” again, this time at the Ted Adcock Senior Center in Half Moon Bay at 12:20pm, May 8th. The performance is part of the Mother’s Day Luncheon which starts at noon. This event is organized by the Senior Coastsiders.

“It is interesting how much a woman emigrating from Greece has in common with a woman emigrating from Japan,” said Shintani. “For example, both of these women’s families arranged their marriages, which led to their journey to America. We explore how this shaped their experience in becoming “American”.”

While exploring the stories of their Greek and Japanese grandmothers often left them with more questions than answers, Petrides said, “the performance is really about bringing voice to their lives and celebrating the stories of the millions of women who came to this country with little knowledge about what they were about to embark upon.”

“Through our storytelling we hope to conjure up the audiences’ memories and questions about their own grandmothers. We want to honor our maternal forebears and remember we would not be here if not for the choices they made to lead the lives they did,” said Shintani.

To attend the luncheon and performance, make a reservation by calling the Senior Coastsider’s office at: 650-726-9056. Non-seniors must be accompanied by a senior and the suggested donation for the event is $3.50.

Founded in 1977, Senior Coastsiders has become the focal point for senior services on the coastside. They strive to create an atmosphere that acknowledges and affirms the value, dignity and self worth of seniors and adults with disabilities.

The agency also serves as a resource for the entire community for information on aging, support of caregivers, and development of innovative approaches to address issues of aging.

 They are located at: 535 Kelly Avenue, Half Moon Bay, California 94019. For more information go to their website at:

Women have something to “say” about war


Me, Judy Shintani, and fellow coastside alumni Judy Johnson-Williams, are in an art show which opens this Friday, 2/15. JFKU alumni sister Dorothy Nissen is showing her work in this show too.

“Acts of war make people behave in many different ways. The Women On War exhibit features images of war, not just the Iraq War, but all wars past and present seen through women’s eyes.”

February 15 – March 29, 2008

Solo Mujeres 20th Annual Juried Exhibition In Collaboration With Women Artists of the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts
Juried by Karen Tsujimoto, Curator at the Oakland Museum

In tandem, 2008 WCA Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Yolanda Lopez’s solo show “Women’s Work Is Never Done”

Reception: Friday, February 15, 7-10pm. Admission $5
Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, 2868 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110

Panel Discussion: Wednesday, March 5, 7 pm

Selected Artists: Phoebe Ackley, Gretchen Blais, Lorraine Bonner, Claudia Chapline, Alejandra Chaverri, Vera Costs, Nuala Creed, Adriana Diaz, Ester Hernandez, Scarlett Manning, Aline Mare, Susan Matthews, Dorothy Nissen, Sandra Ortiz Taylor, Priscilla Otani, Helen Poole Newman, Kimberly Rowe, Judy Shintani, Susanne Slavick, Yuriko Takata, Tanya Wilkinson, Judy Johnson Williams, Holly Wong, Nancy Worthington, Eileen Zevallos.

This is the piece I am exhibiting called “The Remembrance Shrine” which has memories of Japanese American Internees, hidden behind shutters on this illuminated, wrapped bird cage.


Cheney pushes for Protect America Act expansion

I typically do not get too political on this blog, but this really makes me mad.

This is an edited down version of a yahoo new story:

The surveillance law, which authorizes the administration to eavesdrop on phone calls and see the e-mail to and from suspected terrorists, expires on
Feb. 1.

Vice President Dick Cheney prodded Congress on Wednesday to extend and broaden an expiring surveillance law, saying “fighting the war on terror is a long-term enterprise” that should not come with an expiration date.

On Tuesday, Senate Republicans blocked an effort by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to extend the stopgap Protect America Act without expanding it.

Congress hastily adopted the stopgap act last summer in the face of warnings from the administration about dangerous gaps in the government’s ability to gather intelligence in the Internet age.

Administration allies in Congress not only want the expiring law made permanent but amended to give telephone companies and other communications providers immunity from being sued for helping the government eavesdropping and other intelligence-gathering efforts.

“The intelligence community doesn’t have the facilities to carry out the kind of international surveillance needed to defend this country since 9-11. In some situations, there is no alternative to seeking assistance from the private sector. This is entirely appropriate,” Cheney said.

At the heart of the controversy is whether the government’s wireless surveillance program violated provisions of the original FISA law that requires warrants for wiretaps whenever one of the parties involved in the communication resides in the United States.

The original FISA law requires the government to get permission from a special court to listen in on the phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States. Changes in communications technology mean many purely foreign to foreign communications now pass through the United States and therefore require the government to get court orders to intercept them.The Protect America Act, adopted in August, eased that restriction. Privacy and civil liberties advocates say it went too far, giving the government far more power to eavesdrop on American communications without court oversight.

Come on! What is happening to our privacy and free speech? Our checks and balances are disappearing. Our leaders are taking advantage of conditions to take more control of their citizens. I can’t help but remember what happened to my family in the ’40’s – imprisonment based solely on racism.

a Greek granddaughter and a Japanese granddaughter telling stories 7/28


We (Lisa Petrides and Judy Shintani) will be telling the stories of our grandmothers this Saturday at the Enso Art Gallery, using spoken word and movement. This will be our second time performing this piece. The first time was up at Gallery Route One in Pt Reyes, California.

It is interesting that two women from very different places could have things in common, and yet one can also get a sense of how their extremely different cultures affected their lives and personalities.

We are considering holding a storytelling workshop in August.

See our pieces from the accompanying art exhibit “What Was She Thinking?”

The Remembrance Shrine exhibited at the JFKU alumni exhibition

The Remembrance Shrine, February 2007 – Found objects, writings, rice paper

This piece will be on display in the Alumni Show at the John F Kennedy Arts and Consciousness Gallery, Berkeley, California, May 15-June 17, 2007.

I created this piece to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the internment of Japanese-Americans that occurred in the U.S. during World War II. Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, authorized the forcible internment of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. Over two-thirds of those imprisoned were U.S. citizens, none of whom had shown any disloyalty.

The shrine is on display for viewers to read, participate with their own writings, and remember those who were imprisoned in America because of their race. The piece is created from a bird cage wrapped in rice paper and is reminiscent of an Obutsudan, a small Buddhist home shrine. Many of them were destroyed in America during W.W.II. The shrine glows like a Japanese paper lantern. The light from this shrine signifies the dignity and resilience of those who were imprisoned. ben-kawahata.jpgThe memories of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in the internment camps from 1942-46 are hidden behind shutters on the walls of the shrine. The viewer may interact with the shrine to reveal thoughts and memories from this challenging time. Many of these internees spent a substantial part of their childhood behind barbed wire in America.

Writings from parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were gathered from the families of Reiko Fujii, Mallory Nomura-Saul, and my own. Additional memories and thoughts were received through my alma mater, JFKU, and from responses to a posting on I am honored to have been entrusted to share these memories and I respect the spirit, grace, and dignity expressed in them.

More of my art can be viewed at

“Journey to Tanforan” on June 2 Will Reunite Former Internees

I just found this most incredible event that is happening on June 2 at Tanforan Shopping Center. Here is the press release: 

SAN FRANCISCO (March 16, 2007) – In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to United States concentration camps during World War II.  For nearly 8,000 San Francisco Bay Area Japanese Americans who were first evacuated to Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, this journey marked the beginning of a several years-long revocation of their civil rights.

 Now, 65 years later, we will return — this time to heal old wounds, to educate those who do not know and to reunite with others who shared in the experience.  On Saturday, June 2, 2007, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) and over 20 community-based organizations will join hundreds of former internees on a “Journey to Tanforan.”  Beginning at 10 a.m. at The Shops of Tanforan in San Bruno, we will commemorate the 65th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 and the opening of the Tanforan Assembly Center — the site on which The Shops of Tanforan now stand.

 “For many of the former internees, this event could help put closure to a chapter of their lives at the Tanforan Assembly Center, it was the first stop of what would eventually become years behind barb wire.  It is also the place where the community got their first glimpse of what was in store for them; it is the place of stories and the smell of manure.  It is the place where some too old and sick friends passed away behind barb wire fences, and it is a place where babies were born in horse stalls,” says JCCCNC Executive Director Paul Osaki. 

 A reenactment of the evacuation and arrival at Tanforan is being planned.  Actors dressed in period clothing will arrive on an old Greyhound bus — a reminder to some, and a somber lesson to others, about the events that transpired 65 years ago.

Speakers will include former internees, political guests and Mr. Fred Nicholas — a military guard at the Tanforan Assembly Center — who will reflect on the historic event.  Mr. Nicholas, who went on to become owner of the former Tanforan Shopping Center in the 1970s, installed a commemorative plaque noting the historical significance of the location. 

In addition to the main program, June 2 will also mark a very special groundbreaking ceremony for a Tanforan Assembly Center commemorative garden.  A 20 by 50 foot plot of land near the front of the shopping center has been dedicated by Breevast U.S., ownership of The Shops at Tanforan, as the location for a Japanese garden.  This special garden will be designed by renowned landscape artists Mr. Isao Ogura and Mr. Shigeru Namba, creators of the San Francisco State University Garden of Remembrance. 

“Journey to Tanforan” will be the first time that a formal organized gathering of past internees will be held at Tanforan. There are approximately 2,000 former internees alive today, most in their late 80s and early 90s.